Wednesday, July 18, 2012

That Time Agatha Christie Was a Deplorable Hack (Or — The Authoress Suck’d)

It’s tough to take a dig at Agatha Christie, seeing how her name is synonymous with an entire genre of literature even today, 36 years after she went the way of so many of Miss Marple’s casual acquaintances. On top of that, her wraith gets to brag on about being the most financially successful novelist of all time, and on top of that she gets to taunt the likes of Sidney Sheldon and Danielle Steel with the fact that she’s actually quite a good writer: Say what you will about the denouement of Murder on the Orient Express, but Christie reveals it ingeniously.

However, I do have a major criticism of her work, and fans be forewarned, it makes Agatha Christie sound like a cheap, opportunistic, exploitative monster that would have made Harvey Levin proud.

note the mr. burns-like hand posture
Understand that in order to continue with this, I need to spoil the ending of Christie’s novel The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side. Trust me that this is okay, as Mirror doesn’t rank among Christie’s best mysteries. In the novel, insipid partygoer Heather Badcock winds up dead after consuming a poisoned cocktail that was seemingly intended for the fete’s guest of honor, the feisty, tormented film actress Marina Gregg. And while most attendees conclude that the most famous person at the party had to be the target, omnipresent spinster Miss Marple deduces that this was not the case. In fact, Heather, who died immediately after relating a story about getting Marina’s autograph even though she had rubella and was under quarantine, was the actual, intended victim after all. After hearing Heather’s story, Marina poisoned her because exposure to rubella caused Marina’s child to be born severely handicapped. Before Marina can be arrested, she fatally overdoses.

elizabeth taylor as marina, shower cap as formal hat
This, I suppose, might be a particularly surprising whodunit were it not for the fact that I watch a lot of TCM and have a thorough command of old Hollywood. Years before I watched The Mirror Crack’d — and yes, I watched the film version with Elizabeth Taylor as Marina in lieu of reading the novel — I watched a TCM screening of Laura, the 1944 film noir that starred Gene Tierney and which inspired David Lynch to create Twin Peaks. (Laura, by the way, also stars Clifton Webb, the original Mr. Belvedere.) For many reasons, Tierney’s story is a sad one, especially because it ends with her dying of emphysema after a lifetime of smoking, which she took up after being told by studio execs that she needed to lower her voice. But perhaps Tierney’s greatest tragedy lies in her thwarted attempts at enjoying a happy motherhood.

(Yes, you can see where this is going.)

Though Tierney eventually raised one healthy daughter, she suffered a major hardship with her first child, who was born deaf and severely mentally disabled. In her 1979 autobiography Self-Portrait, Tierney confirmed a longstanding rumor that for years had been repeated in Hollywood circles: that her daughter’s condition resulted from Tierney being exposed to rubella while she was pregnant. In fact, Tierney eventually learned exactly who exposed her when a fan approached her and gushed about being so enamored with Tierney’s celebrity that she once snuck out of quarantine to meet her at Hollywood Canteen, precisely during the time Tierney was with child. Wikipedia explains Tierney’s reaction to this story in a manner I can’t top: “Tierney related that after the woman had recounted her story, she just stared at her silently, then turned and walked away. She wrote, ‘After that I didn't care whether ever again I was anyone's favorite actress.’”

gene tierney
Please, stop and consider that statement — “I didn’t care whether ever again I was anyone’s favorite actress” — with everything you know and suspect about Hollywood actresses. That is just a little heartbreaking.

Now let’s jump back to the suddenly trite and silly world that Agatha Christie created in The Mirror Crackd From Side to Side. Here is how Christie describes Marina’s reaction to the revelation made by that idiot, Heather Badcock:
Very interesting,’ said Miss Marple. ‘I’ve had descriptions, you know, of what this look was on her face. A frozen look. Yes, that describes it quite well. A look of doom. I’m not really so sure about that. It’s more of a kind of paralysis of feeling that apprehension of doom. Don’t you think so? I wouldn’t say it was actually fear, would you, although fear of course might take you that way.’
The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side was published in 1962. Tierney’s daughter was born in 1943. The most high-profile movie version — The Mirror Crack’d, with the role of Marina going to Elizabeth Taylor, an actress who found more success and less tragedy than did Gene Tierney — came out in 1980. It would have been next to impossible for Tierney not to know about this fictionalized version of her most personal torment, to say nothing of the indignity of being reimagined as a murderer. There’s never been any mention of Christie asking permission to use Tierney’s story in a book.

The takeaway: Agatha Christie is just unforgivably tacky.

Now Thats Interesting!, previously:

11 comments:

  1. What an amazingly interesting post! I've never hear this story about Tierney (which makes sense because I've probably only seen one or two of her movies), which is interesting in and of itself, but when combined with the Christie story ... yowza! So, I'm guessing Christie had heard the rumors of Tierney's tale, since the star hadn't told it publicly by the time Christie wrote her book? If so, well, the latter certain has balls. And , like you said, was tacky as hell. Wonder why she did it? I guess the promise of another best-seller was just too much for her...

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    1. Well, she probably did it because it was a good story but without thinking about how it feel for the woman it actually happened to.

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  2. Anonymous8:28 PM

    You can't accuse her of doing something horrible to Gene Tierney if she didn't know it really happened. Chances are that Agatha Christie wouldn't have known Tierney, and the story was probably just floated to her as an urban legend, even if every telling of the story probably included the note, "And by the way, it was probably that girl from Laura that it happened to," since Tierney would have been one of the few actresses of the era with a child born with so many disabilities. Still, it's way awkward that Christie would have profited off some heinous fate that did befall Tierney. And down the line, it's a lot more likely that Elizabeth Taylor and Kim Novak both had at least met Tierney at some point during their shared Hollywood time. That's messed-up too.

    For the record, I've always thought Christie was a shit writer. Ripping off a well-known urban legend makes for a lame revelation.

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    1. From what I've heard of the story, before Gene Tierney admitted that the rumors were true, it was a sort of open secret that loomed over discussion of her personal life -- and with good reason, too, because it's such a crazy story that's it's hard for people not to repeat it. I don't know if Taylor or Novak would have known Tierney, necessarily, but they certainly would have known of her. And that's enough to make a certain sense of distastefulness, I say.

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  3. Anonymous10:28 PM

    Can't really agree with your derision towards Christie. She was a writer, she heard an interesting story, she incorporated it into a piece of fiction. Happens all the time; it's what writers do.

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    1. I actually get your point, and that's a good a defense of Christie as any. But I guess I've always viewed the situation from what I'd imagine would be Gene Tierney's perspective, and how it might seem insulting to her and her daughter that someone else made a profit off a tragedy. Also, just as a viewer of the film, I felt cheated when the mystery was solved with the revelation of a story I'd heard before. Knowing that it wasn't just the product of Christie's imagination rubbed me the wrong way.

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    2. Is it more the fact that the story wasn't the product of Mrs. Christie's imagination or the fact it was a tasteless rip-off of a tragic, real tale? A large portion of fiction is based off real events & it seems a bit unfair to de-credit the book or movie on the fact the plot is based off real events. It is completely fair to de-credit this movie and book due to shamelessly taking a person's tragedy & film/write it in a way unsympathetic to the person it was based of off.

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    3. Yes, it's not so much that that the plot was not 100 percent a product of her imagination, as opposed to something constructed creatively out of bits of real life. It's more what she took and what she did with it.

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  4. Anonymous7:02 AM

    I've never seen the movie version you're basing your analysis on, but in the book you didn't read Marina Gregg is in fact quite sympathetically portrayed, her actions seen as a kind of noble tragedy, what in other film contexts might be termed "redemptive violence." Not sure what the passage you quote is supposed to demonstrate in your argument, but to me it is pretty clearly meant to evoke the mood of classic tragedy, where a sequence of events lead inexorably to doom as well as a kind of grim justice. It can be criticized for being overblown and pretentious given the type of book it appears in, but it's hardly the sinister attack on Gene Tierney that you imagine it to be.

    Anyhow, I agree with the majority of commenters here and on the metafilter thread: using real-life anecdotes, stories in the news, bits of overheard conversation is an integral part of writing fiction, and every novelist has done it. Doing it well is praiseworthy. And the notion that she should have got some kind of permission from Ms. Tierney or her estate is, frankly, ludicrous.

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    1. There's some of that in the movie, too, and I think most people would agree that Heather Badcock had it coming. And the element of tragedy is there too.

      I wouldn't say that what Agatha Christie did was a deliberate, sinister attack as much as it was a thoughtless act that worked to her advantage. It's quite likely that Christie had only heard the story as a rumor about what happened to Tierney's daughter. Then, consequences be damned, she used the plot in a book and made money off what turned out to be someone else's hardship. I kind of see it as analogous to what Heather Badcock did: Heather went out and did something that suited her without worrying about how it would affect other people. And it's interesting that the whole plot would hinge around revenge for selfishness.

      And while I understand that writers incorporate stories they hear into stories they write, the ick factor in this instance would have been significantly reduced if Christie had altered the plot a little more, to the point that wouldn't make someone familiar with Gene Tierney's story immediately get pulled out of the book's fictional world.

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  5. Anonymous10:08 AM

    Well, you obviously have a lower "ick factor" threshold than I do, which is fair enough.

    I'd still maintain that you will find few novelists, if any, with such heightened scruples about using stories from other people's lives in their books, even (or even especially) when it comes to their closest friends and family. If this makes Agatha Christie a moral "monster," they all are, to such a degree, in fact, that the word ceases to have much meaning. If you have spent much time living with or around writers, you can pretty much rest assured that everything you've ever told them will, one way or another and sooner or later, find its way into their work. It may not be nice, but it's the way of the world.

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